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What is Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia?

Emma Lloyd
Emma Lloyd

Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia lymphoma is a type of cancer involving cells of the immune system. This is a slow-growing cancer, and is one of a group of cancers called non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Waldenstrom lymphoma is a rare cancer, with only 1,500 cases diagnosed in the United States each year. In the UK, approximately one person in ten million has the cancer. Most people who are diagnosed are over the age of 65.

The immune cells which become malignant in Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia are called B lymphocytes. These cells normally produce several types of antibodies to protect the body from bacterial infection. In people with Waldenstrom lymphoma, the cells produce only one type of antibody, called IgM, and produce this antibody in excessive amounts.

The prognosis for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia depends on several factors.
The prognosis for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia depends on several factors.

Common Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia symptoms include fever, weakness or fatigue, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Other symptoms develop as a result of excess antibody production, which can cause a condition called hyperviscosity syndrome. This occurs because excessive amounts of antibody in the blood cause it to become thicker. Symptoms of this syndrome may include headaches, dizziness, hearing problems, blurred vision, and abnormal bleeding.

Diagnosis of this cancer is made on the basis of blood tests which detect blood levels of IgM and other proteins which indicate the presence of cancer cells. A biopsy of bone marrow may also be carried out. Once the cancer has been diagnosed, further tests such as a CT scan are carried out to assess whether any of the body’s organs have been affected.

There are many medications and other therapies which can be used for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia treatment. Even so, there is no standard treatment regime which is used to treat people with this cancer. This is largely because the cancer is so rare that a treatment regime has not yet been developed.

If an individual has this form of cancer but has no symptoms, he or she is generally not given any form of treatment. Instead, an asymptomatic person is monitored via regular blood tests for signs of cancer symptoms. When symptoms begin to appear, medications to reduce levels of IgM in the blood are used to manage hyperviscosity syndrome. If medication cannot control IgM levels, a treatment called plasmaphoresis is used. In this treatment the blood is circulated through a filtering machine which reduces IgM levels. Chemotherapy to kill cancer cells, and bone marrow transplant to introduce a new population of healthy cells, are other possible treatments.

The prognosis for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia depends on several factors, including the age of the individual, and the extent to which organs are affected by cancer. Because this cancer grows very slowly, the average survival time from diagnosis is between six and seven years. Good management of IgM levels in the blood is the most effective way to improve prognosis.

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    • The prognosis for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia depends on several factors.
      By: Lisa F. Young
      The prognosis for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia depends on several factors.